Netley Abbey was founded in the 13th century by Peter Des Roches, the Bishop of Winchester. On 25th July 1239, 12 Cistercian Monks made the short journey across the water from Beaulieu Abbey, to begin a new community at Netley. Building work began quickly, with stone taken from the Isle of Wight quarry of Quarr.
The Cistercian Order
Cistercian Monks in their white habits first arrived in England in the twelfth century. The Cistercians were a strict order, originating from Citeaux in France, who usually worked as foresters and sheep farmers. They preferred secluded sites away from worldly distractions, so Netley, encompassed as it was by woodland, was the ideal location. Netley was one of the last Cistercian abbeys to be founded in England.
Henry III became a patron of the abbey in March 1251, but despite its royal patronage, Netley was always a very poor house. It was probably Henry's fascination with Edward the Confessor that gave the monastery its official title of The Abbey of St Mary of Edwardstow. Henry's name still appears on the base of the northeast-crossing tower, with the inscription H DI GRA REX ANGL which can be translated as ‘Henry, by the grace of God, King of England’.
Dissolution of the Abbey
The 1530s were dramatic times. In Henry VIII’s Reformation, the monasteries lost their power as political players and major landowners. In 1536, Henry dissolved Netley Abbey and granted it to Sir William Paulet. At this time it is recorded that only seven monks remained.
Sir William Paulet, who was later to become the Marquis of Winchester, converted the abbey into a private residence. He destroyed many of the abbey buildings and had brick courses added at the top of the south aisle. He also converted the nave into a hall. A typical 16th century doorway still leads into the nave from the south. William Paulet was given Netley Abbey along with other holdings in return for building a dozen castles along the south coast. Netley Castle was one of these undertakings. Much of the demolished stone from the Abbey went into the construction of Netley Castle.
Return to Beaulieu
After three hundred years at Netley the uprooted monks returned to Beaulieu, where their former Abbot, Thomas Stevens, now presided. Unfortunately their return was short lived, as Beaulieu was dissolved only two years later in 1538.
Poets, Artists and Playwrights
An artist’s muse
The ruins of Netley Abbey have long been used as romantic inspiration for artists and poets alike. In the 18th and 19th century the Abbey was a popular site for ladies and gentlemen to promenade. Many of the famous poets and writers of the time, such as Horace Walpole and Thomas Gray, visited Netley and were inspired by its ivy covered walls. Walpole was later to write of the Abbey ‘These are not the ruins of Netley, but of paradise’.
The Ingoldsby Legends
The Rev Richard Barham (1788-1845), known as Thomas Ingoldsby, famous for his medieval legends and contemporary foibles, extols the mystery and the beauty of the ruin in his poem, Netley Abbey: A Hampshire Legend, ‘And yet, fair Netley, as I gaze upon that grey and mouldering wall, the glories of thy palmy days, its very stones recall!
Netley on Canvas
Artists came from far and wide to put Netley onto canvas. Among them was John Constable who referred to the Abbey and its landscape as ‘experiments in natural philosophy.’ He painted his dramatic work of art Netley Abbey in 1833. The Abbey was also painted in watercolour, by artists such as Francis Towne and John Petro Sculp.
An Operatic Farce
It was not only in poetry and works of art that Netley Abbey was immortalised. Players performed William Shield’s 'Netley Abbey, An Operatic Farce' at Covent Garden in 1794.
Ghosts and Mysteries
As with most ruins, Netley is steeped in tales of ghostly apparitions, appearing to the unwary. Amidst the crumbling walls of the abbey, one particular spirit who goes by the name of 'Blind Peter' is said to manifest on Halloween. Peter is believed to be a Cistercian monk who guards the abbey's treasure, hidden in a secret tunnel. But beware any who chance upon this underground passage, as did a certain Mr. Slown whose dying plea was reported to be 'In the name of God, block it up'.
Premonition of death
In 1719, a local builder named Walter Taylor was granted the rights to the abbey stone. One day Taylor told friends that he had dreamt of a monk, who warned of dire consequences if he carried out his plans to demolish the abbey. Taylor did not heed this ghostly counsel and died when part of the east window arch crashed down on top of him.
Poet, Thomas Gray, after visiting the abbey in 1764, wrote this caution, ‘I should tell you, that the ferryman who rowed me, told me that he would not for all the world pass a night at the Abbey, there were such things seen near it!’ Gray returned to the Abbey on numerous occasions.
To the present day
Netley Abbey remained the property of the Paulet family for over 60 years and was visited by Queen Elizabeth I in 1560.
In the 1800s Netley Abbey became a popular attraction for tourists, who took the ferry from Southampton, to wander through the ruins. Postcards of the Abbey were available to send home to family and friends. One famous visitor was the writer, Jane Austen.
The Abbey was passed down through different members of the aristocracy and landed gentry, until in 1830, when the abbey came into the hands of the Chamberlayne family of Cranbury Park. The Chamberlayne’s removed part of the abbey's north transept to provide a gothic folly at Cranbury, which still remains there to this day.
The Abbey Today
Netley Abbey is presently managed by English Heritage. It is still a popular tourist attraction and regularly provides the backdrop to Shakespeare’s plays and wedding photography. Each year on St. George's Day, the Abbey hosts a parade and service within the grounds, for local guides and scouts. There is also a Mass celebrated annually in honour of the Feast of the Assumption of Our lady.
Netley Library. Netley Abbey Leaflet
Hare, John. The Dissolution of the Monasteries in Hampshire
Hoare, Phillip. Spike Island
Victoria History of Hampshire; Volume III